Wills and Harry have made the royal family relevant again, but empty honours for their father can only aid the republican cause.

In late November, a couple of utterly discordant events will occur. New Zealanders will vote in the first of two referendums that will decide whether we replace a flag that features the Union Jack. The implications for our ties with Britain are readily apparent.

As well, the Prince of Wales will be publicly recognised as the Admiral of the Fleet of the Royal New Zealand Navy, New Zealand Army Field Marshal, and Marshal of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The appointments are honorary, but the occasion will jar with those who see it as a colonial hangover, like the present flag.

Recognition of the military positions may give one focus for the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Certainly, no other compelling reason has been given for the visit. There was only a reference to the Princes's limited military career and the Prime Minister's view that a speech by him at this year's Gallipoli commemoration demonstrated a "deep empathy and understanding" for the contribution and sacrifice of New Zealand's Defence Force personnel.

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That is about as convincing as the spurious reasons given three years ago when the Duke of Edinburgh was elevated to the Order of New Zealand, the country's highest honour and limited to 20 living citizens.

It has always seemed peculiar that John Key would sanction such appointments, along with the restoration of the royal honours system, while championing the idea of a new flag and acknowledging the inevitability of New Zealand becoming a republic. Yet he is clearly more in favour of the monarchy than his predecessor or other politicians, such as Phil Goff, Peter Dunne and Mike Moore, who have called for a debate on becoming a republic.

There is, however, a danger in bestowing such grandiose titles on Prince Charles, and not just because of the Lilliputian nature of our armed forces.

The appointments hark back to the stuffiness that, at one time, turned many New Zealanders off the monarchy. Royal visits were exercises in stiffness and formality, and interest in them dwindled. The establishment of a republic when the Queen's long reign ended seemed on the cards. All that changed, however, with the visits of Prince William, first in 2011 in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River tragedy, and then last year with his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and son, Prince George, and that of Prince Harry in May.

Both Princes offered an entirely different manner. They were engaging, apparently genuine and, in wearing their privilege casually, able to interact comfortably with ordinary New Zealanders. They also offered the prospect of the monarchy enduring in this part of the world. No longer did it appear irrelevant or seem quite so odd for the head of state not to be a New Zealander and to reside in a palace on the other side of the world.

But the goodwill the two brothers have generated cannot be taken for granted. Military leaders may relish the honorary involvement of royalty, but for most people it rekindles unflattering memories of the Princes' forebears.

The debate over a new national anthem, in addition to that on the flag, indicates that interest in an unambiguous national identity remains. Ridiculous military titles can only strengthen that.